Melodrama Essay

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Melodrama and its Criticism: An Essay in Memory of Sally Ledger Juliet John For a century, melodrama was virtually ignored by literary criticism. Its popular cultural status was anathema to the Arnoldian tradition dominating approaches to ‘Literature’ from Arnold’s day to that of his disciple, F. R. Leavis. Since the 1960s, however, the rise of Cultural Studies and the reaction against the humanist approach to literary study associated with Leavis has resulted in an increasing critical attention to melodrama. Indeed, such has been the upsurge of interest in the genre that a search of the MLA Bibliography for the term currently returns 1,151 entries. Having recently compiled the melodrama entry for the planned Oxford Online Bibliography of Victorian Literature, I am acutely aware of the prolific expansion in melodrama studies that has taken place in the last decade alone. Before commencing work on the annotated melodrama bibliography, I was uncertain whether melodrama had yet yielded a rich enough critical field to qualify it as a ‘Level A’ ‘overview’ entry in OUP’s bibliographical schema, alongside topics like Realism or Darwinism; in the end, the main challenge was to limit the entry to the 7,000 words specified for Level A entries and to select, as the series format requires, the most important work in the field. One of the automatic entries was the late Sally Ledger’s Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination (2007), which both established Dickens’s debt to the popular radical tradition of Regency writers like William Cobbett and William Hone, and reinforced the importance to that tradition of melodramatic aesthetics and politics. Sally was committed to reinscribing the importance of melodrama to our cultural and political map of the nineteenth century, and to that end, before her tragic and sudden death in January of this year, she had agreed to contribute a
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